Archive for March, 2010

Haciendo Ecología: Being Green in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina

When I left New Zealand, I donated old clothes to the Salvation Army, threw away toiletries, and gifted my oil pastels and blue plastic bucket to my boyfriend.  One item that did make it into my suitcase was a bright green cloth grocery bag.  Available for $1.50 at most major supermarkets in New Zealand, the bag shamelessly implores you to “help us create a better environment”.   Girl scout cookies I can resist, but I never could deny the exigency in the eyes of the clip-art raindrop.

In Buenos Aires supermarkets, produce is weighed before you reach the cash register. Shoppers place fruits and vegetables into plastic bags and present them to a store employee, who affixes them with a price sticker.  The first time I went produce shopping after returning to Argentina, I selected my items, set them on the counter, and tried to explain in rusty Spanish that I didn’t want plastic bags.  The man behind the scale stared at me as if I were a talking orange cat.

“Because of the environment” I explained, brandishing my hideous, slightly self-righteous tote bag.

Ah. Ok,” he smiled after a brief pause, “estás haciendo ecología.”

“Yes, exactly, I’m doing ecology.”   After a few minutes of brainstorming, he agreed to weigh and sticker each item individually.  I walked out of the store with a clear conscience, albeit slightly self-conscious.

Unfortunately, the bags aren’t the only thing here made of plastic.  I recently invented a game called “spot the boob job.”  It’s easy – you just look for a tiny woman with a disproportionately large chest and no bra.  Ironically, women who get implants no longer want to appear as though they are wearing a corset, and so are requesting natural-looking fake breasts.  The result is girls with the body of an adolescent and the chest of a senior citizen.

In Buenos Aires, there is overwhelming pressure to conform to an ideal image of beauty.  According to a CNN article, an estimated 1 in 30 Argentines has gone under the knife.  OSDE, a leading health insurance provider, covers the entire cost of aesthetic plastic surgery if you hold their plan 410 or higher.  The concept of healthy is totally distorted. A popular brand of yogurt, known for promoting regularity, launched an ad campaign encouraging women to eat their yogurt because of its slimming effect.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it contains a mild laxative.

The moral of the story is that it’s not easy being green in Buenos Aires, and the struggle extends beyond being a vegetarian in a carnivorous country.  Buenos Aires is a city obsessed with physical appearance but utterly negligent of the physical environment.  The other day, I encountered a group of young Argentines on the terrace, drinking mate, rubbing tanning oil on their skin, and flicking their cigarettes into the pool.

I’m no sociologist or psychotherapist, but I speculate that this combination of personal vanity and environmental apathy stems from a lack of control.  Inflation and corruption are rampant, university classes are cancelled due to protests, public transportation is interrupted by strikes, and noise and air pollution are palpable.  I can hardly blame porteños for preferring to invest in their looks rather than their city.  Their bodies are one thing they can still take ownership and pride in.  Perhaps it’s unfair to expect people to care for a city that doesn’t take care of them.  Still, even if individuals can’t fix the broken sidewalks, would it hurt them to clean up after their dogs?

When I moved to Buenos Aires over four years ago, I didn’t care about or notice these things.  Instead, I was enthralled by the city’s sense of urgency, arrogance, and glamour.  But live in New Zealand (and date someone doing a master’s thesis on water conservation) long enough, and you start sprouting your own lentils and growing your own herbs.  I used to make fun of people for shopping at Whole Foods.  Now, I say things like, “I’ll just carry my tofu and flaxseed.  Why do I need a bag when I have two hands?”

Leading a healthy and natural life in Buenos Aires is not impossible.  There are vegetarian restaurants and organic cafes, gorgeous yoga studios, meditative breathing courses, and lovely parks and plazas.  However, even if you surround yourself with like-minded individuals and create a micro-community, fighting against the zeitgeist is like driving the wrong way on 9 de Julio.

Obviously, there are many things I adore about Buenos Aires; I wouldn’t have made a pilgrimage back here otherwise.  Unfortunately, the pervasive culture is not one of them. If you move to a new city or country where neither you nor the native residents hold you to the local standards, you can observe your surroundings without being personally impacted by them.  But if you and the local culture take each other on, as was my case in Buenos Aires, the prevailing atmosphere directly affects you, making it harder to accept.

Luckily, as a traveler, I have the freedom to move on if the lifestyle doesn’t suit.  As of now, I am a voluntary and temporary guest in Buenos Aires.  For the short time I’m here, I can overlook the city’s shortcomings and focus on the great things it has to offer.

On my next visit to the supermarket, the staff member in charge of the produce section informed me that plastic bags were an obligatory store policy.

“Why?” I challenged.

“To prevent theft.  We seal your bags so you don’t take more items between here and the register.”  I considered proposing another solution – to weigh fruits and vegetables at checkout, but that would result in slower lines, and put him out of work.

“If it’s one item, fine,” he continued, “but if you’ve got multiple items, like your bananas, I have to bag them.”

“But it’s one bunch of bananas,” I argued. “I can’t possibly add another banana to the bunch.”

“Look,” he said, agitated and annoyed, “I’m just trying to do my job.”

I realized then that he didn’t make the rules, nor was he in a position to challenge or break them.  Neither of us can change this city; but unlike him, I have the luxury of leaving in a few weeks for a place where the grass (and the people) are greener.

“Ok.  Bag them,” I conceded.  At that moment, his job seemed more important than my convictions.

The Others

Interesting article from The Economist about Being Foreign.

Pedestrians Do Not Have the Right of Way: Returning Home After An Overseas Experience

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Near-hit, Traffic in Buenos Aires

Crossing the street in Rome could be the final exam for a 500-level course on “How to Avoid Getting Hit By a Car.”  It requires advanced preparation and specialized knowledge.  While studying abroad in Barcelona, I traveled with a friend to Rome.  We took a bus into town from the airport, hoisted on our backpacks, and began walking to our pensione.  At the edge of the grassy median separating the bus station from the main road we stopped abruptly, paralyzed by fear.  A group of travelers stood cowering like a family of pioneers about to ford a river.  In terror-stricken silence, we watched as multiple lanes of Italian sports cars raced past.  It wasn’t oncoming traffic; it was the Running of the Bulls.

Frantically, we searched for an intersection, crosswalk, or animal whisperer.  With none in sight, we resigned ourselves to spending the afternoon on the curb.  Suddenly, I remembered an obscure fact I had read in a guidebook: the key to crossing the street in Rome is eye contact.  I waited for a lull in the traffic, took a deep breath, stepped into the road, and with feigned confidence shot the Italian drivers an intense look that said, “Hey! I’m walking here.”  Magically, the vehicles slowed, kneeling graciously as we sauntered to the other side.

Fortunately, in New Zealand you don’t need wits to cross the street, just patience. You simply congregate on the corner and wait for the neon crossing guard to give you the green light.  It’s all very civilized, albeit boring.  The biggest risk is that it might be ten minutes before the light changes.  (Jaywalking was completely out of the question for me since I never could work out which direction the traffic was coming from.)  However, when pedestrians are finally given their turn, they have the opportunity to cross diagonally, thus getting two crossings in one.

The best part about being a pedestrian in New Zealand is the zebra crossings.  Alternating dark and light patches of pavement, and black and white poles indicate places where pedestrians always have the right of way.  Because the friendly, law-abiding Kiwis actually respect the road code, you can walk into the street while reading a book without fearing for your safety.

When I finally landed in Buenos Aires after a seventeen-hour delay, an eleven-hour flight, and traveling backwards in time, all I wanted to do was shower.  Before I could so, I had to walk a few blocks to the store to buy toiletries.  At the first intersection, I spotted the familiar black and white bands of paint, and mindlessly continued into the street. A gang of taxis fought each other for the chance to commit vehicular manslaughter.  I jumped back onto the sidewalk, barely avoiding an accident. Between the pharmacy and my friend’s apartment, I had three near-hits.  It seems I was a little unclear about what city I was in.

There are no pedestrian walkways in Buenos Aires; there is only target practice. Although Argentines are essentially displaced Italians, you can forget about the eye-contact strategy.  Staring at an Argentine motorist only helps him perfect his aim. Even where there are pedestrian lights, turning traffic has the self-appointed right of way. The best strategy for crossing the street in Buenos Aires is to run for your life.

Other than a few close calls at the beginning, the transition back into life in Buenos Aires has been relatively smooth.   The weirdest part is that it’s hardly weird at all. There are no suggestions of my time in New Zealand, save a few photos on Facebook, and many remnants of my former life in Argentina remain.  Most of my close friends are still around, I have an active social life, and I know where things are. It’s comfortable.  It’s home.

With everything so deceptively normal, I predicted that I would only need a few days to recover and establish a daily routine involving cooking, meditating, exercising, reading and writing.  After ten days, my biggest accomplishment was watching an entire season of America’s Next Top Model in one afternoon.  Apparently, you don’t get over an abroad experience overnight.

For more than a week, I did little more than sleep and sit on the couch in my pajamas. I felt like a character in a Jane Austen novel sent to the coast to convalesce.  Except that instead of taking a carriage to the seaside to breath in the salty air, I rode the elevator to the rooftop terrace to lie by the pool. At first, I was confused by my exhaustion and frustrated by my apathy.  After a difficult year abroad, I had been looking forward to going somewhere easy.  Now, I appreciate that reentry is harder than I expected, especially because I am so hard on myself.

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires

Returning to a city where you’ve already lived is certainly less challenging than, say, starting anew in Lithuania.  But, it’s still a process and it definitely takes longer than a long weekend. Even if mentally it’s as though I never left Argentina, emotionally, I’m still tied to Auckland.  I may not need to meet new people, but I do have to catch up with old friends and make sure no damage was done to the foundation of our relationship in my absence.  There is the work of creating and adhering to a new schedule, acclimating to local sounds and smells, and seeking out the raw materials needed to facilitate my lifestyle and hobbies, both of which have changed considerably since I last lived here. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about a job or a place to live.

Rather than reprimand myself for being lazy (or blame Argentine drivers for my reluctance to leave the apartment), I lowered my ambitions.  I set smaller, attainable goals for myself, such as getting dressed before noon or reading in the Recoleta Cemetery instead of on the couch.  Slowly and naturally, life is regaining a sense of order and purpose, and I am becoming more active and motivated.  More importantly, given that I am only in Buenos Aires for six weeks, I have reassessed my priorities.  I didn’t come here to be responsible; I came here to spend time with friends and decompress before starting a new adventure. Staying out until 6am on a Wednesday may decrease my productivity, but I am supposed to be on sabbatical. With no one to answer to but myself, maybe, for a little while anyway, I can stop being so demanding and unreasonable.

Geographically Polyamorous: Having Multiple Countries At One Time

Buenos Aires, Argentina

I’m in an open relationship with four countries.  I guess you could say I practice geographical free love.  I entered New Zealand on a one-year Working Holiday Visa.  My first few months were an absolute tragedy, and I had no more intention of extending my stay than of coordinating my five-year college reunion. Weeks were wasted in Wellington wrapped in fleece blankets, listening to depressing music, and devising schemes to get deported.

Then I moved to Auckland, where my quality of life and mental health improved significantly.  By month twelve, I was infatuated with New Zealand’s majestic beauty, in love with my boyfriend, contended with my lifestyle, and reluctant to leave. I was also receiving weekly emails from Immigration New Zealand reminding me that my visa was due to expire.

Protecting your privacy on Facebook is more challenging than obtaining a New Zealand Working Holiday Visa.  For U.S. citizens, the application is free of charge and lodge

d online.  All that is required is that you are between the ages of 18-30 and willing to lie about having health insurance and being financially solvent.  Once you’re hooked on life in New Zealand, the government starts making demands.

To be fair, it is not impossible to extend your stay in New Zealand.  If you have a short-listed skill, are in a long-term, committed relationship with a Kiwi or someone with residency, or can convince your boss that you are indispensable and irreplaceable, you have a good chance of getting another work permit.  However, the process takes months, costs thousands of dollars, and involves medical exams, joint bank accounts, letters of recommendation, and winning a spelling bee.  More to the point, I didn’t fall into any of the aforementioned categories.  My only option was a tourist visa, which would have been tantamount to paying $700 to drain my savings and delay the inevitable.

The best I could do was to take out the atlas and decide where to go next. The obvious choice was Australia.  Ever since arriving in New Zealand, I had heard nothing but rave reviews of Oz from fellow travelers and certain Kiwis whose names have been changed to protect the innocent.  In December, I successfully applied for a Work and Holiday Visa and booked a one-way ticket to Sydney on V Australia.  The flight from Auckland takes about four hours.  My trip will take two and half months, thanks to a couple of extended layovers.

I flew to New Zealand directly from Argentina on a roundtrip ticket.  I never intended on using the second leg, but it was the cheapest option at the time.  However, when I began to contemplate life after New Zealand, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for Argentina. The energy radiating from the city on a warm summer night, the buttery smell of fresh medialunas, the euphonical sound of Castellano: these sensations rose to the surface of my memory like bubbles in a bottle of aqua con gas.  More importantly, I missed my friends.  Returning to Buenos Aires for a few weeks made the most sense emotionally, if not logistically.

Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires

Even though my bedroom is now the guest room, my mother insists on taking offense when I tell her that Ann Arbor, a city I haven’t lived in for nine years, no longer feels like home.  Nevertheless, before I booked my flight from Buenos Aires to Sydney, I called to inform her of my plans. A few days later, she made me an offer she hoped I wouldn’t refuse.

“We’d like to bring you up to the States from Argentina.  You can always fly to Sydney from L.A.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I yelled. “How many times do I have to tell you, I’ve no interest in going to the States? What possible reason could I have for coming home in April?”

“Well, Amy,” my mother sighed, “your grandmother is turning 95, your father 65, and your brother 30.  And we were going to surprise you with your own private jet.”

“Oh, you could have mentioned that sooner.” No matter when I talk to my mother, it seems to be that time of the month.

Following our conversation, I apologized for losing my temper and graciously accepted the free ticket home.  I even agreed to stay for an entire month to be there for Mother’s Day as well.  I didn’t want to go to the States at that time or for that long for a number of reasons – genuine disinterest, impatience and anxiety about moving to Australia, lingering teenage angst, fear of getting sucked into the black hole of satellite TV – but I simply cannot skip my grandmother’s ice cream social. What is the furthest distance between two points?  My trip from Auckland to Sydney.

Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor

No longer do I worry about baggage allowances, long-haul flights, or lengthy transitions.  My only fear is that I’ll never find a compound big enough to house all of the pieces of my life. No matter where I am, I’m always missing someone or something. While I had a wonderful boyfriend in New Zealand, most of my best friends were in Argentina, and all of my family was in the States. Four friends will get married while I’m in Australia, and who knows how many breakups, engagements, births, deaths or really amazing dinner parties will occur in my absence?

Of course, if I were willing to stay in one place, life would be a lot less complicated.  But it would also be a lot less exciting and fulfilling. The irony is that the thinner I spread myself, the more complete I become.  For a long time, I didn’t know who I was, where I belonged, what my purpose was, or what kind of life I wanted to lead.  These last few years have been like an epic scavenger hunt, where I travel the globe collecting clues to these riddles.  In the process, I’ve overcome fears, gained wisdom, met amazing people, and done and seen strange and wondrous things. I’ve learned to be independent, open, confident, composed, and most of all, happy.

For me, traveling is equal parts compulsion, education, and mission.  Sure, my life can be frustrating, uncertain, and lonely at times, but then again, whose life isn’t? I’ve finally come to terms with my insatiable curiosity, hunger for new experiences, and wanderlust.  Maybe someday I’ll be ready for monogamy; until then, I will continue to be geographically polyamorous.


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